"Is this [publication in high profile journals], then, an efficient way to marshal evidence in support of grant proposals, appointments, promotions or fellowships? Of course not - it is madness. The time is overdue to abolish journals and reorganise the way we do business"
David Mermin, Publishing in Computopia, Physics Today, May 1991
[This was written a few months before the arXiv started. See also the followup column, What's wrong in Computopia? in April 1992 which was after the arXiv started]
Given the way the world is today, rather than one hundred years ago, if we wanted to design the most effective way to promote good science would we come up with the current system of scientific journals?
Keep in mind the following:
Journals consume vast amounts of resources including
- as much as 60 per cent of the total budget of many university libraries
[see Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist].
- the time of referees and editorial board members
The "best" journals such as Science and Nature
-skew fields and papers towards `sexy' and grandiose claims
-fail to stop the publication of fraudulent science such as that of Henrik Schon or of papers which fit 20 plus data points to a curve with 17 parameters
The arXiv has now been going for twenty years [see this commentary by the founder Paul Ginsparg in Nature last year]. Functionally, physicists almost exclusively use it to obtain and distribute scientific information independent of the peer review, ranking, and impact factors of journals. It is hard to make a case that this has led to a decline in scientific standards in the physics community. [Why is there no arXiv in chemistry? has no clear answer].
When using the arXiv, I anticipate people make their own judgements of the importance, validity, and significance of papers largely based on the actual scientific content of the paper. I suspect the reputation of the authors also comes into play at times. But I would contend that reputations are still largely based on actual scientific track record rather than on more debatable criteria such as numbers of Nature papers.
So why do journals still exist? Perhaps the two main reasons are:
- the vested interests from publishers
- the institutional inertia within funding agencies and employers who still consider them essential for ranking applicants for funding, jobs, or promotion. One might argue that this inertia is driven by intellectual laziness (i.e. bean counting).
In an ideal world, abolition of journals would free up significant resources that could be used instead to
-employ more people to actually do the science, including to write good review articles that meaningfully assess, filter, and critique the vast seas of scientific information
-provide time for people to make assessments of applicants based on their actual scientific achievements rather than their performance on metrics.
But, how do we get there? Will we ever?